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7 Tips for Finishing the First Draft of a Novel

In the 10+ years I dabbled in serious, sit-at-your-desk-every-day writing before I turned 21, I had one idea. So I wrote the first draft of one novel, AND THE BLACKBIRDS MOCK. I revised it a few times. Then when I entered my Master of Fine Arts in Writing program as a 21-year-old, current students in the semesters above mine advised me not to work on that existing novel.

“Write something new,” they said. “Test your limits while you’re here. See what you can do.”

I took that advice. In the course of two years, I wrote—or, ahem, started—three novels and one short story. Now I’ve added to that number one picture book manuscript and one creative nonfiction essay on becoming a mother. Starting things is so much fun! But finishing them? That’s harder.

But I did finish one novel that I started in those two years of grad school: my middle grade dog story, LUCY RUNNING. That means that in my life I have finished two whole first drafts of novels (and countless revised drafts, but that’s not the focus today). So, gathering wisdom from my extensive experience (ha!), I give you seven tips for finishing the first draft of a novel.

  1. Buy a Planner and Set a Writing Time

    The type of planner I like to use.

    Every single day, or maybe six days a week, jot your designated writing time in your planner. Before I had a baby, I worked as a teacher during the day. In order to get writing done I had to get up at 3:15 am. (You read that right. It was intense. I took a lot of 10-minute power naps in my home office on the old sheepskin rug I inherited from my parents.) I’d stumble to the kitchen, make a latte, and get to work for two hours. Before long this became a deeply ingrained habit that I felt extremely guilty for breaking. Now, I’ve become a baby’s naptime/nighttime writer because life just isn’t the same once you have kids. I promise you I am fast asleep at 3:15 am these days unless my son can’t sleep, thus making me unable to sleep. But I still make it a goal to write every day for 1-2 hours, and it is always when the baby is asleep. If you have a kid who doesn’t mind it when you’re on the laptop and they’re not, lucky you! My toddler loves nothing more than clacking away on my laptop, so I can do no writing when he’s awake. Maybe when he’s 17 years old?

  2. Give Yourself a Deadline

    Many people work well when they’re facing a deadline. Set a date about a year into the future: your deadline for finishing your novel. Determine what you will do on that date to celebrate finishing your first draft. Send the manuscript to a beta reader? Meet with a critique group for the first time? Throw a party? Go out to eat? Choose something that excites you and motivates you to finish that novel.

  3. Set a Page or Word Count

    This is something that you don’t want to do while you’re revising. In revision you’re often getting rid of words instead of adding them. But in a first draft, you need words and pages that you can later reshape into something beautiful. During grad school, I committed to writing three pages a day. So, 3 pages a day X 6 days a week of writing X 11 months (I’m giving you one month of vacation) = 198 manuscript pages. That’s a novel right there! If you can manage five pages a day, you’ve got 330 manuscript pages in 11 months. I don’t know anybody who functions on a write-30-pages-once-a-week ritual, but if that’s you and you get it done every week, that works too. For me—and for many people—small chunks of 3-5 pages a day is a manageable amount of daily writing. And you feel so satisfied when you’re done for the day. In revision you're often getting rid of words instead of adding them. But in a first draft, you need words and pages that you can later reshape into something beautiful. Click To Tweet

  4. Develop a Quick-Revision Routine

    While you’ll be going back into your manuscript to make big revisions later on—after having a beta reader critique it, for example—it’s a good idea to edit your previous day’s work before you write the three new pages the next day. Not only do you catch mistakes that you made yesterday, but by re-reading previous work, you also get into the world of your novel and know exactly where you are when you dive into your new pages.

  5. Use Index Cards to Track Characters

    You can also use Scrivener or a separate Word document, but I love to use index cards. They’re physical representations of my most important characters. I use them to keep track of characters’ features. But I also use them to keep scene-by-scene notes on what each character wants in a given scene. With each novel I keep 10-15 character cards. I only recently started doing this. It helps immensely with the valuable reminder to remember that your characters have lives outside of/before/after your novel begins and ends. And it informs how you write those characters into your scenes.

    An example of a character card for BLACKBIRD. This character’s physical traits are crammed into that tiny box in the corner. The rest is her scene-by-scene life, only some of which made it into the novel proper.
  6. Craft a Plan for Getting Out of Writer’s Block

    There are varying opinions on whether or not writer’s block is a real thing. It depends on the person, I think. I have never gotten stuck while writing a novel that I have a great idea for. I have, however, struggled with how to write certain scenes, especially if they are heavy—sad, serious, complex. In the novel I’m working on right now, I struggled with the beginning. I tried several different POVs, tenses, and formats before discovering what worked. If you’re struggling, try writing the same story through a different point of view. Say, a different person in the novel, or something unexpected like a tree or rock. Or try setting the story aside for a small amount of time, a week or so, and writing down the exact date you plan to return so that you’re kept accountable. During that week, read a book you’ve been wanting to get to for awhile. Give yourself a vacation. If you do write, experiment with something wildly different from your novel. But let your brain work on the novel while you do everything else. Anytime it gives you a piece of information or inspiration, write it down in your notebook.

  7. Remember to Have Fun

    Believe it or not, while writing is sometimes incredibly difficult, it’s also a lot of fun. When I write fiction, I’m transported to another place—just like when I read. There’s something so comforting and exhilarating about inhabiting another person’s world, a story that comes from me but that isn’t my own life story. It lifts me out of the drudge of dishes and laundry and sets me back down refreshed and ready to tackle my life again. That’s why when I miss my writing time, I get pretty grumpy. So, remember to enjoy yourself. Sip that coffee. Relish the flicker of that candle. And most of all, lose yourself in the story you’re creating.

Next week, we’ll talk about large-scale revising once you do have a first draft written. Have you ever written a full first draft of a novel? What tips worked for you? Let me know in the comments!


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